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Bill McKibben’s Math: Climate Change Hits Home (in a 22-City Tour)

It shouldn't take a hurricane to blow open the debate about climate change. But Sandy might help 350.org prove what's at stake in a nationwide campaign to divest university endowments from the fossil fuel industry.

Flooded Bridge photo by Barry Yanowitz

Photo by Barry Yanowitz.

Phil Aroneanu is an organizer with 350.org

For two hours last Monday night, New York City got pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, along with much of the New Jersey and Connecticut coast. The windows started bowing and rattling with every gust, and rain pelted the glass sideways. Nobody was on the streets.

Sitting in our third-floor apartment in Brooklyn, my wife and I pretended to read our books and traded nervous looks each time a gust shook the hatch that leads up to our roof. I'd been following the reports closely, so I knew we weren't in danger of getting flooded. But like many people around the world, I was glued to the white glow of my smartphone as my Twitter feed flooded with images of rising waters on the Jersey shore and in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Sitting in my apartment last week, it felt like all the work I had done over the past few years had come to naught—we'd failed in our mission of, and this was the beginning of the end.

That night, I finally understood what many of my friends in Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and countless other places on the planet must feel each time a massive typhoon or record flooding hits. Climate change finally hit home for me: I was experiencing it in my own house and on my own skin.

For the first time since 2009, when the United States Senate voted down an ill-fated climate bill, politicians seem to be connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change. New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo broke the election-year silence around the issue in a press conference just 36 hours after the storm passed, and Mayor Bloomberg trumpeted President Obama’s climate credentials in an endorsement the next day.

Times Square photo by 350.org

As Hurricane Sandy barrels down on the East Coast, a group of activists with 350.org unfurls a giant parachute banner.

Photo courtesy of 350.org.

"Climate change is a reality,” Cuomo said. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable."

It shouldn't take a hurricane to blow open the debate about climate change. But sometimes—especially in politics—reality needs to bust in at gale force to push back the millions of dollars that fossil fuel companies have spent in a 20-year effort to strongarm, threaten, and lobby politicians to stay quiet about climate.

And yet, sitting in my apartment last week, I wasn't thinking about climate science or politics. I was emotional: tired, raw, and defeated. It felt like all the work I had done with my colleagues at 350.org over the past few years had come to naught—we'd failed in our mission of warning the globe about climate catastrophe, and this was the beginning of the end. How could we possibly fight the fossil fuel companies who insist on dumping carbon into the atmosphere, blocking progress on clean energy, and warming the planet, when we're busy recovering from the second “once-in-a-lifetime” storm in just two years?

As I watched people in my neighborhood pick themselves up, clear trash and branches off the sidewalks in front of their houses, and get back to work, my fatigue gave way to the fighting spirit that New Yorkers showed after 9/11—I was angry. Righteously angry.

It’s that fighting spirit that we’re bringing to Do the Math, 350.org’s 22-city tour that connects the dots between climate change, politics, and the fossil fuel industry.

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In an effort to silence action on climate change, coal, oil, and gas companies have dumped more than $153 million into the 2012 presidential election alone. That’s a cynical move, as these companies already possess reserves of oil, gas, and coal that, if burned, would release five times the amount of carbon that the planet’s atmosphere can safely hold. It’s clear that the fossil fuel industry has become a rogue force—its business model is predicated on burning up the planet, and it consistently frustrates progress on clean energy.

In each of the 22 cities, 350.org and a whole crew of partners will kick off a campaign to divest University endowments from any stocks, bonds, and funds that include fossil fuel companies. It will echo the divestment effort of the 1980s that brought South Africa’s apartheid government to its knees. Student activists across the country are already sounding the alarm on fossil fuel investments, making the case that a Sandy-like future is no future at all. Folks from East Texas to the Pacific Northwest to New England are leaning into local and regional fossil fuel infrastructure campaigns, fighting tar sands pipelines and coal ports.

Fossil fuel companies have already increased the world’s temperature by one degree, and Hurricane Sandy, along with the wildfires, droughts, record heat, and floods of 2012, is the result. It's time to fight back.


Phil Aroneanu wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. In, 2007 he co-founded the Step It Up campaign with a small group of students and author/activist Bill McKibben. In 2008, the group built on the success of Step It Up to launch the innovative 350.org. Phil currently serves as campaign director of 350.org.

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